Black Maybes, Black Possibilities, Black Futures
How do we operate from a state of abundance, when faced with abstract and abject lack? What do we make of the Afro-pessimist insistence on the supraliminal subjugation of all that is Black? Is it still true that “a white man’s yes is a black maybe”? What can be done to protect the Black baby? How can solidarity create new worlds that support our working poor? Can we envision more? Black possibilities are bound up in righteously riotous realities and in bright imaginaries simultaneously; synthesis is plotted in actions towards futures that we create together, with kinfolk whose politics bind us subcutaneously, and the field holds much in store.
We know the histories and the challenges we face, the ways we’ve attempted to address them, and the ways these attempts have met repression; yet many stories lurk beneath the zeitgeist’s surface. In the spatio-political realms, our imaginations (past and present) for what we can do with the cities we live in are boundless; when June Jordan (beloved poet and ancestor) was asked by Esquire magazine to make sense of the Harlem rebellions of 1964 (following the police murder of 15-year-old James Powell, a Black boy), she instead took the opportunity to proffer a techno-futurist vision that would prevent white supremacy from operating on us like that again.
Writing her way into a new Black metropolis, Jordan’s environmentally-conscious literary production fed her new master plan. Titled Skyrise for Harlem, Jordan dreamed of curvilinear high-rise towers with built-in space for Black cultural engagements and watersheds that harness the natural environment to accommodate urban systems in a “cyborg city” arrangement. While the plans were never realized, her ideation set the stage for BIPOC design interlocutions to redress and repair our spaces, including initiatives like the Design Studio for Social Intervention.
Designs meant to live in physical space rely (in their planning) on designs meant to represent physical space; here, too, we find innovations. Julie Mehretu, an Ethiopian-American visual artist whose work my Ethiopian-American father introduced me to with great pride, examines geographies as spaces for upheaval and reckoning; her re-representations of cartographic etchings disperse the familiar colonial shapes and western-biased Mercator projections into vivid chaotic colorations in Looking Back to a Bright New Future (2003), at once combustive and transgressive in the questions she raises regarding the coming reshufflings of the geopolitical order and the way we understand our environments. These reshufflings are not coming insomuch as they are always here; even now, struggles against (neo)coloniality abound in Haiti, in the Congo, and in Palestine. Mireille Fanon Mendes France, a jurist and scholar of decolonization (who also happens to be Frantz Fanon’s daughter), writes in HoodCommunist of the recent hubbub for international intervention in Haiti that,
Haiti needs neither tears, nor self-pitying words, nor a Core Group, but to be left in charge of its own future…Haiti needs the establishment of an unwavering solidarity, needs “to break with this type of apartheid that does not speak its name, which wants several Haitians to live side by side without meeting each other.” Haiti must no longer be the convulsionary country described by Aimé Césaire, but, “the Haiti of Love, of Solidarity with other peoples, of generosity, of emotion.”
These fights for self-determination are unfolding possibilities in themselves as territory and resources which can determine development lay in the balance.
Resources, broadly defined, must remain in our hands because of their capacity to shape us as we shape them. We must therefore also worry over the production of cultural resources stateside. Industries froth at the mouth and champ at the bit to capitalize on and technologically ‘gentrify’ art at the expense of the artists; moving at breakneck pace on the highways to nowhere of NFTs and generative AIs. As economies become rougher for artists to eke out a living within, as Black artists are pushed out of cities along with the rest of the Black working-class, arts cooperatives, like Art.Coop and the forthcoming cooperative iteration of the Dorchester Art Project, and the growing solidarity economies around creativity offer a non-exploitative path forward. New funding opportunities allow for new kinds of imagination that help guide political action. Futurists in the traditional visual arts are re-conceptualizing near-archaic processes and imagining them anew; Adam Davis, who came to work with us twice at Black Market, describes his tintype photographs of Black subjects as futuristic face cards that calls on the deep history of tintypes and Black image making post-slavery. This framing refuses the usage of identification for legibility, offering instead a heritage or lineage-based historical logic for carrying ID.
Our futurists in fugitive aesthetics over the past five decades, the hip-hoppers of post-modern upheaval, are intimately involved in the shift here as well. 2Pac was only ever wrong about one thing; the hate given to little Black infants, the deprivation, the defunding of school music programs, the power outages, the vacant lots, that ‘Pac theorized would f*ck everybody (in the immortalized THUG LIFE acronym), in actuality became a productive primitive accumulation, a primordial nothing birthed by policy (and shaped by us) to create cultural institutions which now influence space.
Tomashi Jackson, 2021 Ashe Ashe grantee and one of many speakers at our Assembly of Black Possibilities this past October, offered in her panel conversation that “deprivation leads to a sickened, uneducated society where none of us are safe,” an unquestionably true assessment. Black and brown folks responded as best we could to fill in the scarcity, the paucity of color, with the brightness of our cacophonies. Graffiti artists, insurgent aesthetes, battled buffers and police to become muralists and graphic designers; hip-hop architecture is now an established language, and the field implements participatory practices from hip-hop (like the “cypher”) in its processes to open up design to working-class communities of color. The cultural productions broached in this essay build on self-determinative politics, praxis, and economies– arts cooperatives are simply specialized workers’ cooperatives, the likes of which exist in force in Boston (in no small part because of efforts like our own at Ujima). The informal block parties and community hang-outs which spring from hip-hop are but the latest in a series of Black retoolings of public space, termed ‘Dark Agoras’ by J.T. Roane, that bring ancestral modalities of openness to the United States’ enclosed built environment.
Our politics, practices, and economies ultimately arise from ethical and spiritual bases; full cooperation and participation as modes come not from Western theories, but from African and Eastern foundations. African harvest festival traditions inspire Kwanzaa, from which the principles of collective work and responsibility (and cooperative economics) are cemented; the Africanisms that feed Kwanzaa were kept alive by practitioners of Hoodoo, a spirituality fully concerned with synthesis of practices across the diaspora; and this attempt at syncretizing can also be found in the prideful American incarnations of Islam that make up the Nation of Islam and the Nation of Gods and Earths (which, while controversial, are also sectarianisms wholly concerned with Black uplift and self-empowerment). The imaginaries here birth ways of understanding our universal predicament, and offer guiding paths forward that bring us together. Much of these spiritual undergirdings are inherited from our disconnected lineages across the globe; from the Fan people of the Congo and their heavy influence on present-day Hoodoo, to our Ummah in Falastin (and all across Africa and Asia, including in Niger and Sudan) and their influence on the variants of Black Islam practiced in American contexts, we learn across seas and borders. Yet our family is just as imperiled as we are, some facing even more dire straits; critical support in resistance must be extended no matter the means, as colonial subjects must get it how they live. Long live the martyrs, who took the ultimate risk towards imagining what’s possible in this world.
We venerate revolutionary deaths, rightly so; sacrifices for us made by our ancestors and our present-day heroes are why we are here. These deaths are bound up in spiritual ontologies, as we recognize that passing from this world into the next is its own form of liberation from physicality (and its attendant chains and bonds); but these deaths are also manifestations of a necropolitics in which we are positioned to lose agency from birth until the end, to hold a positionality of ‘living’ dead until fate arrives at us; our futures require that we divorce ourselves, to the greatest extent possible, from the necrotizing flesh around us, passing death onto the systems that hold us so that we can enjoy postmortem freedom while we remain on this Earth. Tongo Eisen-Martin, poet laureate of San Francisco and new Boston resident, explicates further in the closing lines of “Four Walls”:
“And people don’t rise from the grave
They are not laid down neither
It’s us who flip all round their body
So beware when the people around you look like they are about to jump
It might be your time
You’ll feel a heat
And when four walls demand to be four walls
And the earth outside mutes
Do not panic
Do not recreate the earth outside
Do not tell jokes to yourself
Do not talk disrespectfully to the four walls
Instead, unclench your fist and walk away
There might be heaven
if you understand the nature of the world”
It must be acknowledged that Afro-pessimism informs much of this essay about Afro-futures; while many of the arguments presented by theorists like Frank Wilderson III and Jared Sexton ring terribly true in understanding the “nature of the world”, as Eisen-Martin puts it, we must arrive at differing conclusions. Wilderson argues that Blackness, and thus anti-Blackness, are timeless constructions–to him, this represents an intractability of the ills we face.
To me, Blackness situated outside of time means our futures owe our pasts, and vice versa; this underscores the need for action towards traction. A dear friend and colleague of mine, filmmaker and newly appointed MASSCreative Arts Advocacy Fellow Cidjud Felix, keeps asking variants of the same urgent question, paraphrased here: “what will our descendants seven generations from now hold onto from us?” The question we must then ask ourselves is: what do we owe them in the here and now? Given their possibility (indeed, their conditional probability), what Bayesian priors must we shift to ensure their liberation? The answers lie in front of us: in what the past held, and in what the ever-present now brings us everyday.
Alula Hunsen is an essayist, researcher, editor, and Editorial Manager at Boston Ujima Project. His specific intrigues lie in Black cultural production, planning creative spaces, and alternative economies that support self-determination.